Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Q&A with Len Kruger




Len Kruger is the author of the new novel Bad Questions. He worked at the Library of Congress for many years, and he lives in Washington, D.C.


Q: What inspired you to write Bad Questions, and how did you create your character Billy Blumberg?


A: My memories of seventh-grade junior high (“middle school” today) inspired me! That is such a weird time for boys. Some are becoming interested in going on dates and school dances. Others are still into little kid things, like candy and toys and baseball cards. Many, like Billy, are straddling both worlds.


I wanted to write a first-person narrative of a 12-year-old boy grappling with a very transitional and turbulent time in his life. To render Billy’s character, I channeled my 12-year-old self and drew upon some of my pop culture obsessions growing up in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.


These included: the Mad Magazine satire of the movie Love Story, the radioactive vegetable episode of Gilligan’s Island, and the metaphor-rich “Cone of Silence” in the TV spy spoof Get Smart. Billy uses all these memes as frames of reference to make sense of the world and reckon with the many challenges he must face.   

Q: How was the novel’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: Several things.


First, the adult Billy is a physicist and one of the key characteristics of the scientific method is asking good questions. However, the 12-year-old Billy — in his quest to figure out how life works — goes down multiple rabbit holes of superstition and pseudoscience, asking lots of bad questions that get him into trouble. Billy’s father does the same, with tragic consequences.


Second, there’s lots of Jewish content in the novel, and “questioning” is a feature of Judaism (e.g., the Four Questions of the Passover Seder).


And finally — “Bad Questions” as a title — I just liked the sound of it!


Q: The writer Suzanne Feldman said of the book, “An adult’s story seen from a young boy’s point of view, Bad Questions rings with emotional truths that resonate vividly and viscerally today.” What do you think of that description?


A: I like this description because it makes it clear that Bad Questions is more than the pure nostalgia of a 12-year-old’s story in 1971.


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I had no idea how the novel would end. As I was writing Bad Questions, I could only see maybe one or two chapters ahead.


I really like E.L. Doctorow’s famous comparison of writing a novel to driving at night: you can see as far as your headlights illuminate the road, but you can’t see the final destination until you get there.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on a new novel. In 2021, I had a short story published in the Potomac Review about a condo-dwelling, curmudgeonly 69-year old divorced guy who hates electric scooters and loves dogs. I really like the first-person narrative voice of the story, so I decided to keep going and make a novel out of it!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Thank you for the great questions!


I and the two other Washington Writers’ Publishing House contest winners (in poetry and creative nonfiction) will be doing a book launch and reading at Politics & Prose, Washington D.C., on Oct. 14 at 3 pm. We’ll have another reading at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, on Oct. 22, also at 3 pm.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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